EU commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic gives a press conference at the EU headquarters in Brussels on June 15, 2022. The European Commission launched new legal action against Britain on Wednesday, accusing London of threatening peace in Northern Ireland by trying to overhaul the post-Brexit trade deal. (Photo by John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Has the Tory left deserted Northern Ireland?

Conservatives must stop backing the disastrous NI protocol

This week, the government finally published a bill intended to deal with the most damaging aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The reaction from its domestic opponents, as well as the thronged ranks of Irish nationalists and EU apologists, was as overstated as you would expect.

The bill is nowhere near as radical as portrayed

Most concerningly, many Conservatives, who are supposed to support the Union, seemed prepared to align themselves with this country’s foes to further undermine Boris Johnson’s leadership. That’s despite the fact that the bill is nowhere near as radical as it is being portrayed.

The proposed legislation would override some aspects of the Irish sea border, while giving ministers powers to set aside others, but it would leave some form of trade barrier in place. Its most significant clause removes the assumption that goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are automatically “at risk” of entering the EU’s single market.

This is a clever strategy by the government, because it exposes the absurd pretence at the heart of the protocol: that products destined for Ulster comprise a threat to Brussels’ economy. When Boris Johnson initially signed the deal, at the end of 2020, he assured businesses that most categories of goods would be exempted from “at risk” status, but the EU quickly showed that it had no intention of being reasonable or pragmatic on this point. 

The government’s protocol bill turns the assumption of risk on its head. If products are to be sold anywhere in the UK, including in Northern Ireland, then by default they will be considered not “at risk” of entering the single market. This will allow ministers to use new powers to set up “green” and “red” customs channels, possibly based on a “trusted trader scheme”, separating goods for Ulster from goods or materials that will eventually be sold on into the EU.

Many of these ideas were first raised in Lord Frost’s command paper last summer. Like that document, this bill tries to draw the protocol back to its stated purpose.  Northern Ireland would enjoy a “dual regulatory” regime, allowing companies to adhere to either UK or EU standards for goods, depending on whether they are intended only for domestic sale or for wider distribution.

The point is that the protocol’s more draconian provisions should affect only products that are genuinely at risk of entering the single market. The bill is not supposed to dismantle the Irish Sea border, but to resolve the most glaring constitutional problems it created and restore genuine access to the UK internal market for Northern Ireland.

Indeed, many unionists have criticised the legislation on the basis that it does not go far enough. In the Belfast News Letter, the former Brexit Party MEP, Ben Habib, described it as a “sleight of hand”, because many of its provisions involve discretionary powers rather than immediate action on checks and paperwork.

The DUP has refused to commit to returning to government at Stormont until the government makes more progress in taking its proposals forward. Even the most enthusiastic unionist commentators acknowledge that the bill is merely a useful “first step” toward dealing with the protocol and restoring the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

It used the province recklessly in an attempt to blunt Brexit

For that reason, it’s all the more daft that the chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, Simon Hoare, supposedly told the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, that Britain had had “better Anglo-Irish relations under Cromwell”, thanks to this legislation. The member for North Dorset is one of a number of Conservatives who are at least as likely to retweet Irish nationalists approvingly as colleagues from their own party, never mind even the most moderate Ulster unionists.

The Irish republic’s belligerent foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who has done more damage to Anglo-Irish relations than most, stopped just short of appealing openly to these Tories to rebel against the government’s bill, after it was introduced by Liz Truss. He said, “I wouldn’t call on Conservative MPs to do anything — that’s a matter for themselves,” but his implication that they could defeat the protocol legislation was scarcely even a coded message.

Boris Johnson clearly shares responsibility for the sea border and the damage it has done to the Union. It’s also understandable that his leadership is under attack, thanks to the prime minister’s many mistakes and ailing popularity.

The patrician “left” of the Conservative party has scarcely acted any better, though, when it came to respecting and valuing Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. It used the province recklessly in an attempt to blunt Brexit, and it should not now be allowed to deploy Ulster as a weapon in the latest Tory civil war.

If MPs ally themselves with Dublin ministers, separatist politicians, Irish Americans and other assorted opponents of the UK to defend the protocol, it will represent a betrayal of conservative values and the Unionist cause.

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